Happy teens steer clear of crime, drugs

UC DAVIS (US) — Cheerful adolescents are less likely to be involved in crime or drugs, according to a new study, that finds teens with minor depression have higher odds of engaging in those activities.

“Our results suggest that the emphasis placed on happiness and well-being by positive psychologists and others is warranted,” says Bill McCarthy, sociology professor at the University of California, Davis.

“In addition to their other benefits, programs and policies that increase childhood and adolescent happiness may have a notable effect on deterring nonviolent crime and drug use.”

McCarthy and postodoctoral researcher Teresa Casey used 1995 and 1996 data from nearly 15,000 seventh- to ninth-grade students in the federally funded National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, the largest, most comprehensive survey of adolescents ever undertaken.

They found that about 29 percent of the youth surveyed reported having committed at least one criminal offense, and 18 percent said that they had used at least one illegal drug. The researchers then correlated these reports with self-assessments of emotional well-being.

Consequences of happiness are rarely examined by sociologists, and no previous studies have investigated its association with juvenile crime, the authors say.

Most explanations of adolescents’ decisions about crime focus either on reflective thought that discourages offending, or negative emotions—such as anger or rage—that contribute to it. The new study argues positive emotions also have a role.

“We hypothesize that the benefits of happiness—from strong bonds with others, a positive self-image and the development of socially valued cognitive and behavioral skills—reinforce a decision-making approach that is informed by positive emotions,” the researchers write.

Happier adolescents are less likely to report involvement in crime or drug use. Adolescents with minor, or nonclinical, depression have significantly higher odds of engaging in such activities.

The study also found that changes in emotions over time matter.

Adolescents who experienced a decrease in their level of happiness or an increase in the degree of their depression over a one-year period had higher odds of being involved in crime and of using drugs.

Most adolescents experience both happiness and depression—the study finds that the relative intensity of these emotions is important.

The odds of drug use are notably lower for youth who report that they are more often happy than depressed, and are substantially higher for those who indicate that they are more depressed than happy.

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